Ever wonder where the ‘green’ in ice-covered Greenland comes from? According to Icelandic lore, viking explorer Erik the Red gave Greenland its name to lure settlers after discovering the territory in the 10th century. New evidence of ancient tundra buried beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet, however, gives new credibility to Greenland’s name with the discovery of organic soil dating back three million years. The findings, which challenge long-held ideas about how glaciers work, may also offer new insight into climate change.

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According to a University of Vermont press release: “Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrap off everything–vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock.” The discovery of three-million-year-old organic soil preserved beneath the ice sheet, however, shows that instead of eroding the landscape as expected, the ice sheet merely froze the land. Scientists confirmed the existence of the ancient tundra after finding high concentrations of beryllium-10, a rare isotope that indicates that the soil developed over hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

Related: Scientists Discover a 400 Mile Canyon Below Greenland Ice Sheet

The ice sheet that covers over 75 percent of Greenland still remains a large mystery to this day. Last year, scientists discovered a canyon twice the length of the Grand Canyon hidden beneath the ice. Recent evidence also indicates that the Greenland Ice Sheet may have survived through many iterations of global warming. “The ancient soil under the Greenland ice sheet helps to unravel an important mystery surrounding climate change,” said Dylan Rood a co-author on the new study from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and the University of California, Santa Barbara. “How did big ice sheets melt and grow in response to changes in temperature?”

Scientists are keeping a close eye on the Greenland Ice Sheet as global temperatures continue to rise and threaten the ever-shrinking ice mass. Although the ice sheet survived earlier periods of global warming, University of Vermont geologist Paul Bierman warns: “if we keep on our current trajectory, the ice sheet will not survive. And once you clear it off, it’s real hard to put it back on.”


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